Indiana University Bloomington

The Thought that Was God: Constable’s Trinitarian Relationality

Sarah Kissel, English, political science, and religious studies

Written for ENG-L310: Literary History I

Instructor: Prof. Robert Fulk


Throughout his poem “To God The Father,” Henry Constable employs relational images and dynamic diction to illustrate God’s capacity to encompass multiple iterations while maintaining singularity; He is three-in-one. The result of the paradoxical relationship Constable delineates between the three selves of Divinity — Father, Son, Holy Spirit — is the establishment of the state of mutual love between God and humanity as the vessel for salvation. Constable guides his readers through the seemingly contradictory nature of the trinity to illustrate that wherever there is loving relationship there is divinity, and it is in this reciprocity that humans may expect the privilege of embodying the divine.

The very first description Constable provides of God — the first word of his entire poetic illustration, in fact – is “great,” a reference to God’s vastness. As an adjective, the term is certainly multi-definitional, but at its most straightforward, “great” signifies large, expansive, eminent; Constable evokes God’s size and scope to imply His capacity for dynamism and multifacetedness, which prepares the reader’s paradigm to conceive of the exploration of trinitarian theology he is about to conduct. Constable becomes more explicit in his tour through God’s many dimensions by rhetorically endowing Him with spacial boundaries to aid in the conceptualization of His vastness. The third word of the poem is “within,” which invokes the duality of interior and exterior spaces: God is not a single boundless entity, in accordance with common understandings, but rather a vast structure capable of variance, possessing a “within” and therefore also a “without.” By referring to God’s “within,” Constable shows He must also necessarily have a “without,” lending God structural shape rather than the nebulous indefiniteness that constitutes a common understanding of the metaphysical. Constable uses the rhetoric of spacial border to give God shape and aid in the reader’s conception of Him as both transcendent and still possessive of sufficient definition to be subject to the politics of selfhood. This entire understanding is complicated, however, by the paradoxical use of “simple” as a modifier of God alongside “great” in reference to a being with boundary; Constable’s diction leads the reader through the contradictory nature of God’s selfhood like a jungle of opposites held in tension. By juxtaposing “simple,” a word that connotes plainness or the absence of variance, with “great,” Constable explores the contradictions embodied by God. It is in this tension, he asserts, that the most comprehensive conception of God can be found: His divinity is located in the capacity both for vast simplicity and political boundary that allows for contradiction. The second line reinforces the diametric theme by establishing God’s selfhood as something to be found within His “simple essence:” again, the language of relativity (“within,” “find”) emphasizes the multi-faceted, layered nature of God’s selfhood. If “it” — God’s “self” — must be found, the seeker necessarily must look through or among another politically independent entity altogether, but we are told in the first line that the entity we are meant to look “within” is, in fact, God. All of this seemingly duplicitous rhetoric allows the reader to conceptualize Constable’s understanding of God’s capability to encompass many aspects in His transcendent singularity.

In the second stanza, God is exhibited as having agency over Himself by virtue of his power to reflect his aspects between each other and transition in and out of iterations. Constable writes that “When on thyself thou didst reflect thy mind, / Thy thought was God, and took the form of thee.” His use of “reflect” falls in line with previous uses of distinctly spatial images by evoking separateness — for a reflection to occur, there must be distinctness between object and reflection. His spatial diction illustrates that this Great God has enough political boundary to be conceptualized and manipulated, but also enough transcendent divinity to do the selfmanipulation of His on volition on His own behalf according to His own intentions. Constable’s use of “reflect” endorses the idea of layered selfhoods — they must be distinct to be oriented in relation to each other via a “reflection.” However, as Constable has indicated, they are of a single divine source. This stanza also establishes God’s “mind” as distinct from “thyself,” and therefore a political space in which God’s divinity is manifested in his ability to encompass such contradiction — God and His “mind” and “thoughts” are separated semantically by Constable, but he does not allow the reader to forget that these two entities are inherently of the same God. As he continues his delineation of these dynamics, a crucial tension is established between the two verbs in the fourth line: “was” and “took.” A single noun (thought) is described as relating to a second noun (God’s form) in two distinctly different ways, one of static equation (was) and one of change, movement, development and transition (took). Such a paradox begs the question: if the thought “was” God, how could it proceed to “take the form” of God? Constable uses these rhetorical politics of space and relationship to underscore his argument that there must be distance between God and God’s mind for such dynamics to occur. He steers us through God’s contradictory nature by simultaneously invoking oneness and unity while slowly delineating the facets contained within that singularity — iterations of God can be, and iterations of God can take. God’s divinity, Constable implies, is in His ability to encompass such a paradox — only God could enact such a miracle of three-in-one.

As the reader moves into the second stage of the poem, Constable’s indications that he intends to unpack the nuances of the trinity grow stronger as he explicitly references incarnational theology with the appearance of Christ. Constable writes: “And when this God, thus born, thou lov’d’st, and he / Loved thee again, with passion of like kind.” In these two lines, Constable transitions the reflexive thought of the preceding stanza into a far more corporeal — and familiar — archetype: the son of God. Constable deliberately establishes the new component as “this” God, rhetorically distinguishing it from the previous Father God discussed up to this line. “This” God is also “born,” a clear reference to Christ, who doctrinally was born of the Virgin Mary and is miraculous precisely due to the nature of his birth. Constable finally arrives at the relationality foreshadowed in the poem’s title by examining the implications of God’s paternal relationship with this new God through introducing the dynamic of love. The fact that “thou,” Father God, “lov’d’st” this reflexive thought incarnated in His son Jesus Christ is central to Constable’s work because love is relational: it requires an object, and objectivity — as Constable has shown – requires distance and separation. Again, Constable is invoking distinctness and unity simultaneously to ease the reader into a conception of the trinity as threein-one; divine precisely because both one and multiple, both static and dynamic, both isolated and capable of interrelation specifically through love. “He loved thee again” directly indicates that this love is repeated, reiterated, replicated — it is both a new love independent of the original and sourced from the original, dependent on the original. This, Constable advocates through his relational language, is the dynamic multifaceted foundation on which the trinity rests: the nature of God’s holiness resides in His ability to exist as simultaneously singular and multiple, and to love in an array of directions with a spectrum of dynamics. Furthermore, “passion of like kind” both alludes to the introduction of salvation into this dynamic by invoking the rhetorical discourse that canonically surrounds God’s sacrifice on behalf of humanity as “the passion of the Christ” and underscores the reciprocity of love between entities that are both the same and distinct. Constable connotes Christ’s pain here to remind his readers that God’s love in multifaceted in its manifestations in this manner as well: sometimes it looks like abundance and protection, sometimes it looks like agony and loss, but it always harbors salvific, sacrificial redemption. The key theological move being made here is Constable is asserting that love is what makes the trinity possible — love requires an object, and objectivity demands distance and distinctness. It’s the fact that God encompasses love between incarnations of Himself that constitute a metaphysical miracle.

Constable transitions back into the realm of the earthly and human with the last stanza before the volta: “(As lovers sighs which meet become one wind), / Both breathed one sprite of equal deity.” His sexualization and romanticization of devotion with the metaphor of lovers is a deliberate rhetorical decision to bring these conceptions of the trinity back down to earth, so to speak. The reader has undoubtedly begun to wonder what the implications of God’s relationship with His many selves are for the individual devotee, and Constable is poised to explain just that with a metaphor that makes these concepts accessible to humanity, laypeople in particular. Erotic language when describing the individual’s relationship with or conceptions of the divine is common rhetoric particularly in early modern Christianity (as we saw in Donne’s “Batter my heart”) because of its intensity and emphasis on separate beings of individual agencies decidedly uniting and becoming one. This collapse of identities and selfhoods is a concept Constable has explored throughout the poem, and the invocation of lovers’ sighs does the rhetorical work of relating this complex relationship to one easily identifiable for readers. Furthermore, sighs in particular map directly on to the production of the Holy Spirit for Constable because both entities issue from a source — lovers, God — and could not exist without that source, but are independent beings distinguishable from that source even so; neither can be seen or contained by boundaries, but are decidedly real and can be felt or experienced nonetheless. Canonically, the authors of the Bible often characterize the Spirit as breath or wind (Job 33:4, Ezekiel 37:9). Both God and His reflexive thought (Christ) breathed, yet their two actions produced one “sprite,” or “spirit,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Thus, the Holy Spirit is both the unique product of two distinct entities and a simple reiteration of a single entity — for Constable, God plus God equals God, not unlike person plus person equals person. This structure’s reminiscence of human reproduction both reinforces the appropriateness of the lovers metaphor and furthers the work of making trinitarian theology intellectually and conceptually accessible. The image of breath is also reinforced canonically — Christian discourse often makes reference to God “breathing the breath of life,” understood to be the Holy Spirit. Constable’s characterization of the divinity of this holy sprite is notable in the diction he does not choose rather than in the diction he does: he calls the deity “equal,” not same. Constable’s conception of the Holy Spirit is of a being that is just as divine as God is, but maintains its independent distinctness. All three of these incarnations within the trinity are equally divine, but — very essentially — not the same. The possibility of simultaneous difference and oneness results in the potential for a loving relationality between this multi-faceted God and mortals, thereby providing the human race with a vessel by which to access salvation (and, therefore, Heaven). Constable’s language of transcendent love in this section marvels at such a possibility, and firmly locates the miracle of redemption in God’s three-in-oneness.

All of Constable’s examination of the dynamic selves contained within God and the nature of the relationship between the iterations of the trinity begs the question: what are the implications of this relationship for humanity? At the volta, Constable at last transitions into considering explicitly what this means for conscious intentional followers of God and how they may go about seeking a relationship with him, among his many selves: “Eternal Father, whence these two do come / And wilt the title of my father have” is the first half of a four-line crescendo that declares love is the answer to the insurmountable puzzle of relating to this paradoxically three-in-one Great God. Because the trinity depends on relational love to endow the contradiction of unity of several in one, Constable frames this same relational love as the mode of intercession between human and divine; relationship bridges the gap between God and human. At the volta, Constable reinvokes fatherhood, which connotes love and bears explicit relational implications, a return to the separate-but-reflexive idea that has remained consistent throughout. Constable reminds the reader — and God Himself, the addressee — that God is both the source of these other two incarnations and the father (or source) of the speaker. He draws parallels between Christ and the Holy Spirit — separate entities that enjoy an intimate relationship with God — and himself, the implications of which transition into the request with which he closes the poem, the point of all of this conceptualizing: to seek and establish a more comprehensive relationship with God characterized by divinity as originated in and exemplified by the trinity. In this paradigmatic move, the speaker may enjoy a transcendent relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that functions relationally, like a bridge that may be crossed from either side. This relationship will be the source of his salvation.

The conclusion of Constable’s complex theological study is delivered in the final four lines of the poem: “And heavenly knowledge in my mind engrave, / That it thy son’s true Image may become; / And cense my heart with sighs of holy love, / That it the temple of the Sprite may prove.” Constable is confident that he will receive a slice of divinity, that is, a relationship with God. He has established these two concepts — relationality and divinity — as synonymous, which enables the speaker to expect the reciprocal love modeled to him by the trinity. God’s miraculous nature resides in His capacity for relationality (specifically in the form of sacrificial love) and so wherever such a dynamic is found, as Constable sees it, God is present. He boldly asserts that the Eternal Father “wilt” fulfill His role as existential source of being and political source of relationality, which subsequently positions Him as the source of salvation via a transcendent relationship — terms, Constable has shown the reader, which are redundant. The reciprocity of love between Father and son, between God and the speaker, will “engrave” the speaker’s mind with “heavenly knowledge” and “cense” his heart with “sighs of holy love.” Here, the image of the two-way bridge becomes indelible as God cements a stronghold in the speaker, and so the speaker in God. Constable’s use of the phrase “true Image” appears oxymoronic based on the traditional definition of image as a hollow reproduction or representation of an object, but as Constable has illustrated, reproductions and reiterations of God are still of “equal deity.” For Constable, love is the answer: fatherly love produces a relationship which is inherently divine, and the speaker is confident that the love of his father will engrave Christ in his mind and cense the Holy Spirit – the sighs of holy love — into his heart.

The final couplet rounds out the corporeal metaphor Constable has employed to illustrate his conception of trinitarian theology as multiple-in-one: just as a single person can possess both a mind and a heart that are distinguishable from the whole and yet simultaneously produced by, enmeshed with, and dependent upon the umbrella entity of the self, so Christ and the Holy Spirit are embodied in God as multiple identities and reflections of His selfhood. Constable seeks for his own body to become a “true Image” of this relationship, a mirror of the corporeal model of the trinity. Because God has “engraved” and “cense[d]” the speaker, he is now endowed with the proper conceptualization of relational, sacrificial love and the miracle that is the existence of a dynamic within God and with God. Constable ends his poem with a miracle: the implication that humans’ physical bodies could contain traces of the trinity. Such a theological move is logical, however, considering the ways in which he has shown us that relationality is inextricable from divinity — though humanity may never fully incarnate the trinitarian God, they may experience its redemptive majesty. The fatherly love engenders divinity in his relationship with God, and the result, Constable concludes, is that the believer may look forward to becoming a vessel for God and achieving oneness in the inherent divinity of a relationship with Him.

“To God The Father” is Constable’s roadmap to salvation through reflexive love and its inherent divinity – only through a comprehensive appreciation of the paradoxical nature of the trinity and the mirroring of that relationship may humanity expect to experience the divine.


 

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